Some books give you such pleasure that you always want them nearby. And in my adventures into drinks no book has impressed me as much or given me more pleasure than this masterpiece on the art of making cocktails.
There are dozens of books about making cocktails, rather like there are about food, but few are worth the cover price. None approach the quality of this classic book.
This book launched me into a cocktail addiction that lasted about 20 years. From it I learnt the basic ideas behind the simple art of mixing cocktails, an art that has not been learnt by many bar artists as they try to out do each other to make the bizarre and undrinkable. Only last week I was told a story about a whisky sour that was served blended with an egg. You might get away with an egg white but eggs seldom work as modifying agents in brown spirits.
Making great cocktails is like great cooking, you do not need a recipe if you understand the underlying ideas. This book teaches this. ‘Roll your own’ is his answer but before we get there, here is one of his thoughts from the preface of the second edition printed in 1955.
“Also there are various new drink mixtures, some, in my opinion, decidedly inferior, which have hit the headlines and created at least a temporary furor, and about which my readers might like to know. What is the Moscow Mule, the Waltzing Matilda, the Bloody Mary, the Screwdriver, the Grasshopper?
Perhaps the outstanding example of what I mean is vodka - a wholly characterless, dilute grain alcohol that has streaked across the firmament of mixed drinks like Halley’s Comet. As I said in the first edition, ‘it makes an excellent cocktail base and, having no pronounced flavour of its own, it will blend with anything. On the other hand - and just because it is wholly characterless in itself - it has definite limitations. It is hard to conceive of any worse cocktail monstrosity than the Vodka Martini, the Vodka Old Fashioned, or Vodka on the rocks”.
Well Embury would not be happy with the modern embrace of vodka, and some of those cocktails he spurned have survived. Taste madness is still live and well in many a cocktail bar though some cocktail concoctions that pass as fashionable in bars are simply so absurd that there has been a return to the art form taught in this book in new bar openings in Australia. With that said I recently ordered a Daiquiri to be made with limes, the classic blend, in a new bar on Lygon Street, Carlton and the bartender told me he had not been asked for this for years.
The great cocktails are based on distinctive spirits and they are listed as, the Martini (gin based), the Manhattan (whisky based and be warned this book uses the term for all whiskies and most often this means American rye or bourbon and the term for Scottish whisky is Scotch the use of which in cocktails he disapproves of in any case), the Old Fashioned (whisky based), the Daiquiri (white rum based and sometimes gold rum), the Side Car (Cognac or Armagnac based) and the Jack Rose (apple brandy and in this case Embury means American apple jack which is hard to find so use Calvados instead). Of these the last two are seldom made in Australia and indeed the Jack Rose barely exists in America.
What makes this book special is how you are taught to blend ingredients in a way to enhance the overall result. There is no need to remember or consult a recipe book to tell you what goes in each cocktail; simply ‘roll your own’. A useful formulae I settled on came down to three parts strong, which is the base alcohol, two parts sour which normally means lime or lemon juice plus bitter cordials and one part sweet which is sugar syrup and may include sweet liqueurs. Naturally this is for the range of sour cocktails not Martinis which of course do not require sugar syrup. Then the very simple advice that every ingredient including the glass must be stunningly cold. So a successful cocktail requires you to freeze the glass, the alcohol and have the citrus juice, sugar syrup and any other flavourings ultra cold.
In Australia cocktails fell out of favour several decades ago although they have had sporadic revivals. The first was an attempt to modernize the cocktail with cream based liqueurs that combined sweet with sweet and new blends, often odd, with risqué names such as ‘slow comfortable screw’ or ‘slippery nipple’. Use was also made of new (to us anyway) liqueur styles such as sambucca and the addition of several fruit juice tastes together. The last remind you of mixing several primary paint colours together to see it all go brown. And recently and of far more interest smart new bars have opened that are doing the traditional cocktails reasonably well and have picked up on overseas trends to take the classics and blend in herbs and spices. One of interest is the lemon and basil martini which is lemon flavoured vodka (45ml), Limoncello (15ml), Cinzano Bianco (15mlk), lemon juice (10ml) and sugar syrup (10ml) and flavoured with torn basil leaves. I suspect Embury would approve and the blend has not strayed to far from the three strong, two sour, one sweet idea and at least his hated vodka is flavoured.
There are good descriptions of the basic alcohols and liqueurs but where would you now find; apry, allasch, arrack, Carlshamms Punsch, Certosa, Cherry Heering, C.L.O.C., Crème d’Annas, Crème de Violette, Goldwasser, Falernum, Fiori Alpini, Strega, Parfait Amour, the splendid Peppermint Get, Van der Hum or Vieille Cure. All these we sold back in the 1970’s and now they are just memories. There has been some new additions but how I wish I had a bottle of the failed Liquid Lamington as surely I would be the cocktail king of Australia with a new cocktail called of course ‘stone the crows’.
This is a fine book and towards the end when many have run out of steam Embury is still scathing about the Zombie but then finds peace with lovely descriptions of Tall Drinks or Highballs. He moves through Rickeys, Bucks, Collinses, Fizzes, Daisies and Fixes, Cobblers, Coolers, Slings and Toddies but most importantly tells us how to make the perfect Mint Julep, naturally using the best Kentucky bourbon. It surely is one of the great cocktails ever devised.
There is more, much more in this wonderful record and the book is strongly recommended. You may find a copy in some garage sale or other. And let's end with a great cocktail recipe from page 139. It’s called the Larchmont and was devised by the master himself; and is 6 parts white Cuban rum, 2 parts Grand Marnier, 2 parts lime juice and half a part sugar syrup.